Records: Tigerlily; Natalie Merchant (Elektra 7559-61745-2)

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The Independent Online
The first solo album from the former 10,000 Maniacs singer holds no surprises. Shorn of even the occasionally uplifting spark of the Maniacs' music, the mood is oppressively dolorous. The basic guitar and piano settings are bland, joyless, and diffident, afraid to impinge on her rarefied sensitivity with anything approaching fun. Then again, with material like "Beloved Wife", in which a widower contemplates suicide following his wife's death, fun would hardly be appropriate.

The problem is that there is so little opportunity here for fun. Merchant appears permanently hurt: sensitive to the smallest slight, she's a lightning- rod to offence, even where none probably exists. "River", her paean to River Phoenix, merges maternal lamentation ("how could we save him from himself?") with bitter media scolding - "your vulture's candour/ your casual slander/ you murder his memory" - as questionable as Michael Jackson's "Tabloid Junkies". How, one wonders, ought the media to have dealt with the drug death of a supposedly squeaky-clean celebrity?

Away from the specific, she's on safer ground, able to marshal her prevailing disillusionment into vignettes of a dysfunctional America: "San Andreas Fault" uses geology as a metaphor for crumbling dreams of West Coast success; and "Carnival" finds her caught in the classic tourist trap, torn between sensual indulgence and social conscience. The best track here, however, is the simplest: in "Jealousy" she peels back the veneer of unconcern to reveal a spurned lover's spite - "is she bright/ so well read/ are there novels/ by her bed?" - with a delivery which, for the first time, approaches the haunting quality of Sandy Denny. But it's too little, too late.


Natacha Atlas

Beggars Banquet NATCD 47

Diaspora offers Transglobal Underground singer Natacha Atlas as an Ofra Haza for the 1990s, importing a bellyful of Eastern promise to the Euro-dancefloor. Judging by the title, she seems keen to provide a wider appreciation of "the syncopated heartbeat of Arab and Jew", as the annotation for "Leysh Nat'arak" puts it.

A good thing, surely, and a musical delight, particularly when Afro-Celtic influences are added to the mix of "Alhambra", a geographical metaphor for the TGU sound. Oud, tabla, dharabuka and clarinet weave seamlessly with the more prosaic pop instruments, with a complete Arabic string section adding further layers of colour. It comes closest to the TGU crossover groove on a track like "Yalla", where the exotic musical blend is strapped to a sluggish house beat, providing a fascinating contrast between the rigidity of the rhythmic pulse and the flexibility of Atlas's voice. If there is a drawback to Diaspora, it's rooted in the heady pan-cultural richness implied by the cover: it's too rich to take all at one sitting. A Mi Shabba; Shabba Ranks Shabba's new album includes a dashed-off duet, "Go Shabba Go", recorded with Chuck Berry, which is presumably Shabba's idea of lending his overly lubricous image a little modesty and reserve. It's awful of course, the product of at least five minutes' preparation and application: you can all but picture Chuck packing away his guitar even as the engineer's setting the levels.

Left to his own devices, Shabba's still as horny, and his sound as punchy, as ever, thanks to a slate of producers ranging from Bobby "Digital" Dixon to C "Specialist" Dillon and Sean "Puffy" Combs, plus one or two others tragically lacking nicknames. There are signs, though, that Shabba's trying to modify his bad-boy image: Leroy Sibbles and Black Uhuru's Mykal Rose drop by for collaborations aimed at ameliorating Shabba's slackness with a little roots-reggae style, while even the duet with swivel-hipped dancehall queen Patra on "Ice Cream Love" is surprisingly mild, given their combined track record. It's hardly new-man stuff, but by Shabba's standards it's very nearly discreet. Altitude; ALT This is the kind of thing that infuriates talented young bands who spend all their time desperately searching for a record deal: three old farts, farting around on a major label.

The farts in question here are the Irish singer-songwriter Andy White; Liam O'Maonlai, of Hothouse Flowers; and Tim Finn, once of Split Enz and Crowded House. Between them, they've written a few decent tunes in the past, but they appear to have left their songwriting skills behind when they made Altitude: these are half-formed, demos of ideas in desperate need of a little polish.

Some, like "Penelope Tree" and "The Refuge Tree", have a decent hook or melody line, but too often it's left undeveloped. Meanwhile, their shambolic, acoustic-jamming approach only compounds the shortcomings. At times it sounds as offhand as Beach Boys Party!, as if it has been thrown together on the spur of the moment. But significantly, there's no "Barbara Ann" here to buoy the album.